Saturday, February 28, 2009

My Wine Dog

She began her life with a questionable future.

The only intention of the idiot who bred her litter was making money selling “police dogs.” However, when the puppies have a dubious lineage (sorry, girl) – and the breeder is widely regarded as a fool – selling the puppies is a tad difficult.

So, she was shuffled off to a foster home, where her world was a 10 x 10 kennel in a trailer park. The foster mom did the best she could, but she had her hands full with over a dozen dogs. By the time I became aware of her plight, she was six months old.

The day I went to pick her up, I loaded her into the cab of my pick-up truck and she immediately wedged herself under the bench seat. After dragging her out for a visit to the vet, she re-entrenched herself under the seat for the ride home.

Her panic at being exposed to a new world quickly disappeared, however, when I took her out to the backyard to meet my two (male) German shepherds. She was instantly the belle of the ball.

The first time I tried to walk her around the block, she slunk close to ground and hugged my leg – terrified of cars, new sounds and just about everything else. Over the days and months to come, her confidence grew and grew. I was training dogs at the time and our kennel and training facility became her playground.

When I adopted her, she came with a name – Peanut. I was determined to change it, but nothing seemed to fit. She was just Peanut. Not the most regal name for a Belgian Malinois, but it stuck.

Peanut grew into an amazing dog (technically she’s a bitch, but it hurts her feelings when I call her that). In her prime, she learned everything from agility to tracking to protection to Frisbee catching. Her primary talent, however, was soaking up as much attention as one cared to lavish on her.

That scared little puppy of long ago was the inspiration for this post, which was selected to appear in "Wine Dogs USA 2" (Giant Dog, $39). The Wine Dogs series is the creation of Craig McGill and Susan Elliot. I owe both of them a long-overdue thank you for including my essay in this beautiful book of photographs and essays by other wine/dog people.

Best of all, I can now say that my writing has appeared in the same pages as Robert Parker, who penned the foreword. I’ll have to bust that out at a wine tasting one day.

These days Peanut is the grande dame of our animal kingdom. She spends her days taking leisurely walks, enjoying long naps and basking in the sun. Her most strenuous duty is schooling our young Malinois, Hogan. God knows, he’s in constant need of it.

My only regret is there isn’t a photo of Peanut to accompany her essay. Here’s one I took while she was on a well-deserved vacation at Edisto Beach, South Carolina.

I'm not sure which of us has been the luckier one.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Moment in the Kitchen

I’ve spent the last several days fighting off some sort of illness. Yesterday was (hopefully) my breakthrough day, when I finally felt well enough to get back into familiar routines.

While puttering around the kitchen mixing up a batch of marinara sauce, I realized that I was really happy for the first time since I’d gotten sick. Since my marinara sauce requires a healthy dose of red wine, I was forced to sample a bit – just to make sure it was okay to cook with.

The moment really caught me off guard. After a few days of having no desire for a glass of wine and being more than happy to eat canned soup, it was so wonderful to be back in the kitchen and sipping a glass of simple Italian red.

For some reason it made me think of the people who mistake the love of wine for an affectation or a badge of snobbery – as well as the people who truly do use their wine knowledge as such. Both types of people are way off base.

Wine should be about enjoying food, friends, family, good times and good health. It’s just that simple.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hits and Misses

A friend at work was asking me about buying wine the other day. He’s just getting into wines and feels a little overwhelmed looking at all the different types of wine and different wineries.

I was telling him that the turning point for me in wine buying was when I stopped worrying about it. Basically, I decided to buy wines that looked interesting and give them a try. The more wines I tried, the more I came to realize that I liked more than I disliked.

Wineries don’t want to put out bad wine – most of them anyway. And, a wine you don’t like is a learning experience. Just like a dish you don’t care for is part of your cooking education.

I was reminded of this last night when my Valentine’s Day dinner fell short. The lamb steaks weren’t very good. I just can’t seem to get lamb to come out right. I’m really kicking myself because I ignored my own rule for holiday cooking – cook something you do well.

Luckily, the wine was a real hit. It was something that I knew nothing about when I bought it, other than it was a Napa merlot from a winery that I was vaguely familiar with and it was a good deal.

That wine was Havens Merlot Napa Valley 2004. A local wine shop had it reduced to $15, plus I got a 15 percent case discount. Napa merlot for $12.15? I’ll give that a try. I’ve found some really great deals in merlots lately. A quick peek around the Web shows the Havens for anywhere from $19 to $28.

It was supple, elegant, dark, sultry and a little spicy. How’s that for V-Day wine? I may not be much of a cook, but at least I still have a keen eye for wine.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day

Here's hoping everyone is spending the day with a loved one. Or, if not, you're spending the day being kind to you. Holidays, meaningful or not, are a great excuse to be good to yourself.

Last night was not the time to be dining out, so we took a cue from Dr. Debs of Good Wine Under $20 and had a Friday Night IN. She recommends a wonderful pasta dish in the post.

Unless you're concerned about your LDL (like I should be), I suggest you give it a try.'s good.

Sparkling wine is definitely the right match. We paired it with Saint Hilaire Brut Blanquette de Limoux 2005, one of the greatest values going in non-Champagne French sparklers. It's crisp and tasty, with apple, lemon and pear flavors, plus a nice yeasty touch.

Cheers to everyone.

Friday, February 13, 2009

For the Love

I can count the things I’m good at on one hand – even with one or two fingers removed.

I’m a decent writer. I can teach a dog a thing or two. And, as they say down here in the South, I’m a fair-to-middlin’ cook. That’s where I start running out of talents.

My skills in the kitchen came from various sources: my mom, quite a few years spent working in restaurants and lots of trial and error (emphasis on error). I used to think I was quite the culinary man, but a recent stint in a real kitchen proved me otherwise. Even looking around the blogosphere has made me realize I’m a pretty average cook.

However, I love to cook and I’m getting better all the time. I’m also fortunate enough to share my life with someone who likes my cooking and doesn’t mind eating my more errant attempts.

As Valentine’s Day weekend approaches, I know lots of you are planning meals for your loved ones. I started the celebrating last night a little early with a dinner of crab cakes with lemon wasabi sauce and red cabbage slaw. My slaw philosophy is at the end of this post.

I opened another bottle of Torbreck Woodcutter’s Semillon to go along with our meal. It’s my new favorite white wine.

I’ll spare you my rant about the ridiculous consumerism that surrounds V-Day (here’s my rant from a while back). I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you probably won’t be waiting two hours for a table or sitting down for a 10:30 reservation on Saturday night. I know one of my local eateries will be thrilled to have the business in a week or two.

Cooking for your sweetie is a much more romantic gesture anyway. Even if you’re a total novice, you can still follow a recipe and put together something simple. I’d rather have noodles with butter than fight the crowds on Valentine’s Day.

What will I be cooking Saturday night? I’m not sure.

I usually go for something pretty easy, so there’s not excessive clean-up. It’s also not the day to try something new and adventurous – I don’t want to be cranky if it doesn’t turn out right.

Whatever it is, it will be made with lots of love and care. Watching E enjoy my cooking makes me incredibly happy. It’s such a simple – yet rewarding – act of giving.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Beating the Heat

I’ve been experimenting with wine pairings for hot, spicy food. It’s one of the items on my 2009 checklist.

The first challenge was white bean chicken chili, a spicy broth-based stew with lots of cumin and cayenne pepper. The wine pairing was purely accidental. I happened to have an open bottle of Jean-Claude Bougrier Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie Le Landreau 2006 ($7.99 at Total Wine & More).

This worked out better than I could have imagined. The wine was cold, crisp and zingy with acidity. It stood up perfectly to the chili, which is augmented (a little too) generously with Monterey Jack cheese and sour cream. It’s simple and inexpensive, so I didn’t worry about losing nuances amongst the spices.

Next up was black bean chicken chili. This is a tomato-based chili with lots of chili powder and heat – a little more daunting to match with wine. I picked two wines – Casa Lapostolle Merlot Rapel Valley, Chile 2006 and Stoneleigh Riesling Marlborough 2007. They finished neck-and-neck.

I was a little stunned by the performance of the merlot. Reds gets lost in spicy foods sometimes, but the fruit stood up to the spice and the noticeable tannins seemed to help too. The rielsing worked as expected; it was cold, off-dry and had plenty of fruit to balance the heat and spice.

Last night it was pork Vindaloo, a super spicy stew from the state of Goa in India. Depending on who you ask, this dish is made in a number of different ways. My iteration was hot – damn hot. It was the kind of hot that makes you want more even as your eyeballs are bursting into flames.

In keeping with my rather random wine selections, I choose a bottle of Chameleon Cellars Carignane 2005. It didn’t stand a chance.

The heat and spice beat the wine into submission. I gave up after a couple sips and enjoyed the rest of my glass after dinner.

Today, I had another bowl of the Vindaloo for lunch. This time I went for a sure-fire match – beer. Magic Hat’s HI.P.A., a seasonal offering from the Vermont Brewery, was the perfect match – hoppy, crisp and just fruity enough to punch through the heat.

So, what do you drink with your favorite hot/spicy dish?